Reflecting on 10 years of motherhood in the CZ
“What did you want to be when you were like me?” Samuel’s voice peeps up from the backseat above the sound of Charli XCX’s pop hit “Boom Clap” on the radio. It is late on Wednesday afternoon. We are in the car, heading down the hill from the garden center Chládek to Dejvice to pick up Anna Lee and Oliver from their sports practices. I am driving, and Samuel is looking out the window. An orange garbage truck passes us, and I can sense where this conversation is heading. I turn down the volume on the radio, trying to figure out if I am going to answer him honestly.
“Did you want to be a lady?” Without waiting for me to respond, he continues, “There are too many jobs to pick, Mommy.”
He goes on to explain that he’d like to be a garbage collector – the one that wears a one-piece jumpsuit and jumps on and off the truck. But he’d also like to drive a truck with a trailer like the one he saw at the beginning of spring. The truck was unloading riding lawn mowers on the grassy space beside Pizzeria Grosseto. While Samuel watched the unloading process, he explained to me that he would need to earn a lot of money when he was big so that he could buy a truck like that and give out mowers. He’d give one to his dad and one to his granddad. He’d mow too, of course, but he needed to be the one who drove the truck. He wasn’t sure how to make it all work because he and his brother Oliver also had an animal rescue service plan for their future. Oliver would be the veterinarian, and Samuel would drive their animal rescue vehicle.
“Does it go to have more than one job, Mommy? I just don’t know what to do first.” Samuel spoke in English, but translated the verb go directly from Czech.
I am sympathetic. There are many jobs I’d like to try, but I haven’t gotten my courage up to act. I am envious of Samuel’s imagination and his certainty. I can’t remember if I ever had such elaborate career plans, even when I was five. When I was a child, I remember wanting to be a teacher. Like my mother. Later on, I tossed around the idea of being a dentist like my father. But after the angst of taking Freshman Chemistry, I settled on being an English major. After university, I took the LSAT preparatory course for law school but chickened out before the exam. I poured over catalogs for journalism graduate schools, but decided instead, pretty much on a whim, to enroll in a TEFL training course in the Czech Republic. That was 13 years ago.
I am getting closer to 40 than 35. It seems that I should already know what I’m going to do when I grow up. In the past year, I can tell that my role as a mother has shifted. My children sleep through the night now. They don’t wet the bed. They make their own snacks and pour their own drinks. Sometimes they even pour a drink for me. They are happy with their independence. I am not sure what I’m waiting for.
After ten years of living with my family in the Czech Republic, I think I have become pretty good at raising children in another country, or at least I’ve managed to get us this far alive and, on most days, still speaking to each other. On afternoons when my English students haven’t driven me batty, and I have a bit of patience left, I listen to my kids as they tell me what happened to them at school.
From 10 year-old Anna Lee, I hear who is mad at whom in her circle of girlfriends. It changes daily, and she needs no advice, only someone to listen to her side of the story. Slammed doors and stamped feet are good ways to cover up being a scared preteen. I have learned to leave her alone until she comes for help and that checking over her homework is out of the question.
According to his second-grade teacher, seven year-old Oliver has a “slow working pace.” Most days Oliver tells me about the work he’s got to finish up that night. He explains why he didn’t manage to draw more than three comics in art even though his group was supposed to draw eight. He tells me that he has an entire page of math to complete because he was thinking so hard he didn’t realize everyone else had moved on. He’s got a page of writing too because he wanted to make his letters carefully, so he couldn’t work quickly. He thinks aloud what he’s going to tell his teacher when she asks how he could be so slow, and he admits that he already cried about it at school when his teacher wasn’t looking.
Samuel talks about the kids in his preschool class that he feels sorry for. He tells of a boy who got his finger shut in the classroom door. The boy had to go to the doctor, and Samuel supposes that he is going to be all right, even though he didn’t come back to school that day. He says the boy is a chudáček (poor fellow). Samuel tells me about another girl who threw up after lunch, and how he, Samuel, again earned a bonbon by eating everything on his own plate.
After years of listening and advising, I have learned a few practical things about parenting in the Czech Republic.
Unless you want your child to sleep in his tee-shirt and underwear, clean pajamas and fresh outdoor pants should be brought to preschool every Monday. Slippers are customary at school and in many homes. Hats are a prerequisite, regardless of the season. I have learned that Czech school children go outside with their preschool or their družina (after-school care) about an hour a day, rain or shine, so a good raincoat and rain boots are a must.
Soup is only a starter. If you don’t want to make babička angry, you must save room for the main-course as well. I know that my children will eat their soup at babička’s and at school, but it’s hopeless to expect them to eat it anywhere else. Unless you want the preschool teacher to single you out in front of other parents, school lunches and preschool payments need to be paid on the 22nd of the month and not a day later. When you find lice in your child’s hair, tell the teacher. If you don’t, your child will anyway. If you run out of store bought lice shampoo, Slovakian slivovice liquor makes a good substitute.
The annual week-long “school in nature” trip is best experienced when your child leaves her mobile telephone at home. Czech dentists don’t clean children’s teeth; they only count them. Expect gruff bedside manners at the doctor’s office. Even though the medical books say that breast-fed babies can’t be too fat, Czech pediatricians may tell you otherwise.
Even four year-old Czech children ride bikes and downhill ski. Homemade chocolate chip cookies can be teacher gifts, and spicy spinach artichoke dip is a party conversation starter. Czech homework is best completed with the help of the internet, or a good Czech friend.
When Anna came to me this spring because her teacher had yelled at her in dance class, I asked around to find out if other dancers had similar experiences. Once I initiated the conversation, other parents confessed that their daughters also complained about the teacher yelling at them. I was ready to remove Anna from the classes and find a school with a less serious approach. The other mothers told me that while they didn’t like the approach, it was the best dancing school available in that part of Prague. They concluded that it was good for their children to experience the pressure being criticized, since that’s reality.
Sometimes I am surprised when I go back to the States for a visit and realize that the parenting customs I’ve adapted from Czech culture aren’t the same as the ones I’d follow if we lived in the U.S. But I realize that the particulars of parenting aren’t that important. We are all doing our best to keep our children happy and safe for as long as we can.
In the Czech Republic, I bake chocolate chip cookies and host birthday parties. I help with homework and read stories to my children. I listen while they read stories to me. It’s a pretty good life. I bet it’s similar to the one I’d have in America.
When Samuel asks me again what I wanted to be when I grew up, I answer him honestly. I tell that I wanted to be a teacher, and I wanted to be a mother. I tell Samuel to keep his list of jobs. Maybe he’ll have a chance to do them all. After our conversation, I decide that I’ll make my own list. There’s still time for me to try a different career. But first, I think I’ll ask Samuel if he needs a secretary.